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Kevin Vanhoozer


How does the ancient text (the Bible) make an impact on our modern
theological mind-set? Is theology a separate discipline from biblical
interpretation? Many interpreters are highly skeptical of the truth claims of the
Bible as well as of its use in shaping the way in which we interact with “the
modern world.” Kevin Vanhoozer posits that since Jesus Christ is “the Word
incarnate,” words are God's means of sanctioning a truthful way of life, politics,
and values. Deconstruction and postmodernity notwithstanding, the student of
the ancient text must learn to let the text speak meaningfully to a new context.
The ancient text has inherent problems. The obstacles to understanding
are many. Some are textual. Others are cultural (historical, social situation,
language, and literature). Yet all the issues are in the words of the text.
However, instead of aiming at the interpretation of individual words, the
interpreter learns to look at the “discourse” as a basic level for interpretation and
for practice. Modern linguistics—especially semantics (theory of meaning, a
branch of linguistics)—is a corrective to the openness in interpretation of the
text, because it seeks to answer relevant questions, such as: What is the nature
of human language? How do we communicate and process the information we
receive? What are the proper ways of listening to the Bible? The Old Testament
also requires familiarity with its varied literary genres and encourages the
integration of language with literature and of literature with history.
These are the issues with which Vanhoozer deals in the essay below. His
engagement with the philosophy and history that shape one's interpretation,
though somewhat complex, is fascinating. In this essay you will discover how
difficult the art of interpretation is. Further, he will open up the vista of the
integration of language and literature with theology.
Vanhoozer concludes that the interpreter can have confidence in hearing
the truth claims of the Bible. After all, the text (sola scriptura) is sufficient for
salvation and for living to God's glory. This text is not only sufficient, it is the
totality of God's revelation in “written form” (tota Scriptura). However, more than
hearing these claims, the interpreter will come to know God. Here is the
theological dimension of the interpretive process. In the process of
interpretation, the readers undergo several shifts. They undergo changes in their
perception of the text, of themselves, of God, and, consequently, of the world.

This handout is an electronic version of Kevin Vanhoozer, “Language, Literature, Hermeneutics
and Biblical Theology,” in New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis,
edited by Willem VanGemeren, et al (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998). Copyrighted material
used with permission. Do not reproduce or distribute.

The dictionary definition of “definition” lists “the statement of the meaning of a

word or the nature of a thing,” and “the degree of distinctness in outline of an object or
image” as possible meanings.1 Definitions mark out the boundary or limits of something.
Yet this definition raises two fundamental problems for the project of a theological
dictionary: (1) Are definitions about words or the world? That is, do dictionaries talk only
about language, or do they give us insight into the nature of reality as well? (2) What
actually defines or gives a word its determinate meaning? Do words have a natural
sense, or a supernatural sense imposed by God? Is meaning a matter of individual
decision (“When I use a word ... it means just what I choose it to mean”—Humpty-
Dumpty2) or of social convention? And are definitions forever, or do they change? As
Samuel Johnson knew all too well, words and meanings alike change over time:

Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.
(T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets, “Burnt Norton”)

The purpose of this article is to survey some leading ways in which language and
literature have been thought to serve either as an access or as an impediment to talking
about God. Is language the antechamber or prison-house of theology, its handmaid or
its warden? Can any language—prophetic, Pauline, pietistic or philosophical—ultimately
achieve transcendence to speak of something other than itself?

These fundamental questions about the language of theology lead to questions

about the theology of language. For questions about meaning and interpretation are
themselves implicitly theological, and sometimes explicitly so. Is language a human
construct or a gift of God? Is language basically an instrument the human creature uses
to cope with its environment, or is it a means for interacting with what is other than
itself? To some extent, the way one answers this question bears on how one conceives
the relation between language and reality.

I begin with a survey of some important theories about words and their
meaning, from Plato to postmodernity, and of how they have proven influential in
biblical and theological studies. I then make good on my twofold claim that theology is
largely a matter of language and language largely a matter of theology. Next I trace the
fate of meaning by considering ever more complex levels of language: words,
sentences, and literary texts. I suggest that meaning and interpretation are most
properly located on the level of the sentence and the text, for meaning is less a matter
of words in the abstract than of words put to certain kinds of use. Hermeneutics, I shall
contend, seeks the meaning of communicative action, and for this we need to look at
language as discourse—as something said to someone about something. I then look, in
the following section, at the ways in which the Bible says something about God through
its many kinds of literature.
Finally, I examine how an integrated hermeneutics of the Bible's language and
literature can be theologically fruitful. While language and literature in general raise
implicitly theological questions, the language and literature of the Bible make explicit
theological claims—claims about God as well as claims on the reader. A dictionary of OT
terms and themes provides an important service in aiding contemporary interpreters in
achieving biblical literacy and canonical competence. The Christian theologian is one
who has learned the craft through an apprenticeship to biblical literature. In learning
what to say of God when, the biblical interpreter gains theological competence—not only
theoretical knowledge of God (episteme), but a practical wisdom (phronesis) that can be
applied to new situations as well.3 Dictionaries, far from being dull records of past
communicative action, thus serve a more dynamic purpose, namely, of informing
contemporary speech and thought about God. Biblical interpretation ultimately leads not
only to biblical theology, but to systematic and practical theology too.

On the Very Idea of a Dictionary Definition:

From Cratylus to Cupitt

Word and Thing. Premodernity and the Imitation of the World

(a) Plato's Cratylus—on philology and philosophy.

Many of Plato's philosophical dialogues take the form of a search for definitions:
What is justice? What is knowledge? What is goodness? In one of his lesser known
dialogues, the Cratylus , Plato treats the nature of meaning and language. The three
participants in the dialogue—Hermogenes, Cratylus, and Socrates—each represent
different positions, positions that anticipate, often in extraordinary fashion, theories
about language that have been, and continue to be, influential in ancient, modern, and
postmodern times. For instance, Socrates' speculations about etymologies bears a
certain resemblance to how the Biblical Theology Movement of the 1940s and 1950s
interpreted biblical words. Similarly, the figure of Cratylus, after whom the dialogue
takes its name, is a precursor of sorts to certain postmodern themes.

The main issue at stake in the Cratylus is whether or not we can speak truly: Do
words give us knowledge of the world? Just what is the relation between philology (the
study of words) and philosophy (the study of reality)? Hermogenes (a disciple of the
Sophists) argues that names are conventional; like the names of slaves, they may be
given or changed at one's pleasure. As such, words are unreliable guides to the nature
of things, for there is no necessary connection between a word and the thing it names.
As we shall see, this position foreshadows Saussure's linguistics, a theory that has come
to dominate much twentieth-century thinking about words.

The figure of Cratylus is less straightforward. He holds that a name is either a

true name, the perfect expression of a thing, or else it is a mere inarticulate sound, not
a name at all. Cratylus neatly encapsulates both the modern emphasis on meaning as
reference and the postmodern emphasis on the indeterminacy of meaning. Cratylus thus
resembles the skeptic who has such high requirements as to what counts as knowledge
that nothing can meet it. 4 According to Aristotle, Cratylus was a follower of Heraclitus,
the philosopher who said that one cannot step into the same river twice and who
believed that change is the fundamental reality. From Heraclitus's notion that “all is
flux,” Cratylus concludes that one ought not to say anything, but only point with one's
finger, since no true statement can be made about what is always changing. Cratylus is
more pessimistic than Samuel Johnson: Whereas Johnson bemoans the impermanence
of signs, Cratylus ascribes the same transitoriness to things in themselves. On the one
hand, then, Cratylus espouses, if only for the sake of argument, the belief that
everything has a right name of its own, fixed (made determinate) by nature. On the
other hand, because he apparently maintains that nature is constantly in flux, no true
names can be given; neither the world nor language is determinate.

It is to counter such skepticism that Socrates enters the discussion. 5 He first

points out that if names are only conventional and if there are different conventions for
different people, then people name things differently. But do the things to which the
names refer differ as well? In other words, is what is in the world a matter of convention
too? Socrates is unable to conceive of this—he did not have the advantage of reading
Derrida or Foucault—and argues that things cannot be relative to individuals. The things
of which we speak therefore have their own proper essence, and the successful speaker
is the one who speaks of things “naturally.” In other words, when we name things, we
are also defining their natures. Who is able to do this? He who knows “how to put the
true natural name of each thing into sounds and syllables, and to make and give all
names with a view to the ideal name.” 6 The business of a name is to express a nature.
One might here cite 1 Sam 25:25 (RSV) in support: “He is just like his name—his name
is Nabal [Fool], and folly goes with him.”

Most of the dialogue is devoted to Socrates' exploration of Cratylus's suggestion

that a word names a thing. Dictionary definitions are not only about words but about the
world. Indeed, in another dialogue Socrates asks: “Do you think anybody understands
the word for anything, if he doesn't know the thing, what it is?” 7 Plato evidently finds it
difficult to distinguish the definition of a word from the definition of a thing. But how is it
that words are the “proper names” for things? Here Socrates launches into what at
times appears to be a tongue-in-cheek attempt to answer this question by means of an
appeal to etymologies. A name is considered appropriate if its root meaning, its
etymology, says something about the nature of the thing named. For instance, the
etymology of the Greek term for “understanding” (synesis) means “to go along with.”
Understanding is thus a matter of “following” an argument or a story. The etymology of
the term, its constituent parts, defines the nature of the thing (e.g., understanding)
itself. There is not much that separates Socrates' use of etymologies from many
theological dictionaries, and much preaching besides.

Once names have been analyzed into their constituent parts, however, the task
remains to analyze the parts, for otherwise one falls into an infinite regress. Socrates,
consistently enough, maintains that the parts of words—the consonants and vowels—are
themselves imitations of things. “R,” for example, expresses rapidity and motion, for
“the tongue was most agitated and least at rest in the pronunciation of this letter.” 8
And “l” expresses liquidity, because its pronunciation requires the tongue to slip. Thus,
in the English word “roll,” we are to think of liquid motion or of rapid slipping (the “o,” of
course, represents the circular nature of the rapid motion!). Socrates' serious philological
point, and it is a brilliant one, is that language is imitative sound. Resemblance of
sounds to things is the first principle of language.

Socrates confesses to no little doubt as to the correctness of his theory, but what
are the alternatives? If one rejects the imitation theory, the only alternatives are to
appeal to the “Deus ex machina” (i.e., the gods gave the first names) or to the “veil of
antiquity” (i.e., we don't know who gave things their names). Plato is clearly unhappy
with either alternative, for each requires him to acknowledge that he has no reason to
believe that we can speak truly (e.g., according to a thing's nature). At the same time,
Socrates is aware that names can be wrongly given; one might call a tomato a
vegetable rather than a fruit. There is a distinction, then, between a name and the thing

Here Socrates grants Hermogenes's point, that naming is, at least in part, a
matter of convention. After all, “tomato” does not really sound like a tomato, nor is
there anything in its etymology that requires it to be linked with a glossy red fruit that
grows on a vine. It is because there is unlikeness, as well as likeness, to things that
requires a combination of nature and convention in naming. This is particularly true of
numbers. The names of numbers do not resemble them. Socrates concedes this point
reluctantly; one gains the distinct impression that Plato would be happier if language
worked exclusively by imitation of nature, as this would fit in better with his theory of
the Forms, according to which things on earth imitate eternal Ideas. To his credit,
however, we find Plato at the end of the Cratylus suggesting that it is dangerous to try
to find philosophy in words (e.g., etymologies). One cannot argue from name to nature,
from philology to philosophy, from morphology to metaphysics: “He who follows names
in the search after things, and analyses their meaning, is in great danger of being
deceived.” 9 We can only trust names to reveal the nature of things if names are God-
given, but Socrates finds little way of making sense of this suggestion. On this account,
how could one account for the variety of languages and for the fact that the meanings
of words change over time? Better by far to view meaning as a joint product of natural
imitation and social convention.

(b) Augustine's On Christian Doctrine.

Augustine, the most important biblical interpreter in the early church, held a view
of language that owed much to Plato. In his Confessions , Augustine recalls how his
parents taught him to speak. “When they named some object, and accordingly moved
towards something, I saw this and I grasped that the thing was called by the sound they
uttered. Thus, as I heard words repeatedly used in their proper places in various
sentences, I gradually learnt to understand what objects they signified.”10 This is a
classic exposition of the “meaning as reference” theory. On this view, the meaning of a
word is the object for which it stands. “All doctrine concerns either things or signs, but
things are learned by signs.”11 Some things, however, signify other things. This accords
with Plato, for whom earthly things are but pale imitations of eternal Ideas. Things are
nevertheless learned by signs, and this includes things spoken of in Scripture. However,
the relation between sign and thing may be obscured because some signs are
Augustine contrasts literal signs, which designate the things to which they refer directly,
with figurative signs, which occur “when the thing which we designate by a literal sign is
used to signify something else.”12 The literal meaning is often the least interesting, the
least edifying, and the least theologically significant meaning. Literalistic interpretation
often leads to poor results:

When that which is said figuratively is taken as though it were literal, it is

understood carnally....There is a miserable servitude of the spirit in this habit of taking
signs for things, so that one is not able to raise the eye of the mind above things that
are corporeal and created to drink in eternal light.13

In other words, interpretation is carnal when one fails to see that the thing
signified by a sign is itself a sign of something higher. To read spiritually is to recognize
that the things referred to by the literal sense themselves refer to something higher,
namely, the things of God. Ambrose had freed Augustine from his difficulties with the
OT by showing that many of its stories, while distinctly unedifying on the literal level,
carried a higher, spiritual meaning.

In an allegory, one thing is said but another meant. The early Christians applied
this method of interpretation to the OT; on this level, the Law and the Prophets refer to
Christ. Augustine's rule for deciding when to take a passage literally and when
figuratively was brilliant in its simplicity: “Whatever appears in the divine Word that does
not literally pertain to virtuous behavior or to the truth of faith you must take to be
figurative.”14 If a literal reading fosters neither the love of God nor the love of neighbor,
then one must choose the spiritual interpretation that does. Multiple readings are not
dangerous so long as none of them contradicts the rule of faith, hope, and love.

Augustine later came to interpret 2 Cor 3:6, “the letter kills, the spirit gives life,”
differently: The law kills the soul unless the Spirit regenerates and enables it to love
God. However, Augustine gives to this principle of the priority of grace a hermeneutic
application as well: Words will convey their true meaning only as God himself illumines
the heart and mind. In contemporary times this has become the insight that one can
only read the Bible aright if one reads as an active participant in the Christian
community (i.e., in the life of the church, and only then in the life of God).

What should be noted is the essentially Platonist theory of meaning that

underlies Augustine's theory: As words signify things, so things signify higher things.
Augustine's penchant for spiritual meanings and the general medieval tendency towards
allegorical interpretation still work within a largely Platonic view of the language-world
relation, where signs imitate things, and earthly things imitate heavenly Forms. Plato
and Augustine serve as excellent illustrations of my working hypothesis that theories of
interpretation presuppose theories of how God, world, and language are all interrelated.
Such an integration between words and worldviews is as true of modern and
postmodern theories as it is of the premodern theories we have just surveyed. I thus
turn now to consider the language-world relation in modern biblical studies.
Word and Thought: Modernity and the Turn to the Subject

In modern thinking about language, explanations of how language speaks truly

have recourse to the mind rather than the world. It was Immanuel Kant who
revolutionized philosophy by insisting that the mind does not know the world directly but
supplies the categories and concepts that shape experience and so make reality
determinate. Kant's so-called “Copernican Revolution” reversed the traditional relation
between ideas and objects in the world. The mind, Kant argued, plays an active role in
the language-world relation, contributing the structure to human experience. Words
express thoughts. This “turn to the subject” implied that language expresses an
individual's experience of the world rather than the world itself. What words represent in
the first instance is not the world itself, nor Plato's eternal ideas, but rather human ideas
or subjectivity. Words are signs not of things but of thoughts. 15 The legacy of Kant's
revolution was that subsequent thinkers became trapped by what appeared to be an
insoluble dilemma: Either language is subjective, eclipsing the world, or objective,
eclipsing the subject.

(a) Frege and the Biblical Theology Movement.

In a famous article entitled “On Sense and Reference,” Goob Frege distinguished
“sense,” what someone says, from “reference,” that about which one says something. 16
The sense is the ideal object, the idea one has in mind; the referent is the real object in
the world that the sense or idea represents. The logic of interpretation is clear: One has
first to determine the sense of a word or sentence before then going on to determine
whether it refers to something real (i.e., whether it is true or false). The same referent
may have a number of senses or connotations, but a sentence should refer to only one

(i) “Sense” and “reference.” Frege's distinction highlights the two directions in
which modern philosophy of language has tended to go. What Frege called “sense” calls
attention to the intentionality of the speaker or author and to what he or she had in
mind. “Reference,” by contrast, calls attention to the external objects in the world
towards which one's mind may be directed. Accordingly, language was thought to
express thoughts and events—the meaning of a word is the state of affairs that it
represents. Samuel Johnson speaks for modernity when he says that words are the
signs of ideas (e.g., mental representations). The language of the Bible is now used as
(1) direct evidence for reconstructing the mentality of the authors and (2) as indirect
evidence for reconstructing what actually happened in history. As Hans Frei has
observed, however, meaning in both instances is still associated with reference:
reference to what the writers had in mind or reference to what happened “behind” the
text. Language is still a matter of naming and representation, only now what is
“imitated” in words are internal thoughts and external (earthly) states of affairs.
Language thus performs an essentially informative function.

(ii) Theology as etymology? It was the Biblical Theology Movement in particular

that became preoccupied with the notion that dictionaries and word studies provided a
privileged access to the distinctive mentality and concepts of the biblical authors. The
Biblical Theology Movement gave theological privilege to “sense.” 17 Some suggested
that the very structure of Hebrew syntax expresses a peculiarly Hebrew mentality: The
structure of the Hebrew language was taken as evidence of Hebrew patterns of thought,
including thought about God. On the basis of differences in syntax and grammar, for
instance, Greek thought was said to be static and abstract in contrast to the dynamic
and concrete thought of the Jew. It was then suggested that the theology of the Bible
pictured a more dynamic sense of time, of history, and of divine activity than in Greek
thought. In other words, it became fashionable to read theology off of etymologies and

Biblical scholars were particularly tempted by etymological analyses because

Semitic languages, including Hebrew, are built around usually three consonants that
serve as the root of a family of related words (e.g., in Arabic, the root SLM is common
to salam, peace; islam , submission; and muslim , one who submits). Moreover, the
consonantal script in which Hebrew is written also calls attention to a word's root. An
eighteenth-century philologist, A. Schultens, suggested that the Hebrew word [v'y: (save,
help) is derived from an Arabic word meaning give room to. He then moved, mistakenly,
from Barr's point of view, from word to concept by arguing that salvation consequently
carries with it some connotation of spaciousness.19

Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, perhaps the greatest

scholarly product of the Biblical Theology Movement, had a profound impact on modern
theology, at least until James Barr published his scathing critique, The Semantics of
Biblical Language, in 1961. Barr showed that a word's etymology may or may not affect
its meaning in a particular instance. Much more important is the immediate context in
which a word is used. Only careful contextual study will prove whether words of the
same consonantal family always carry a “root meaning.” David Kelsey concurs: “In
ordinary discourse, surely, a word does not have one structure of systematically
interrelated senses that goes with the word in every context of use.” 20 One cannot
move smoothly from a study of the various words for “to save” to a discussion of “the
biblical concept of salvation,” for instance. Moreover, some words (e.g., tomato) have
no significant etymology. Others have etymologies that explain how terms were once
used but have nothing to do with the meaning of a term today (e.g., nice). In general,
Barr cautioned against identifying the various uses of a word with its root meaning (the
“word-concept fallacy”). Barr correctly observed that the new content in the Judeo-
Christian Scriptures was expressed at the level of the sentence, rather than the sign
(e.g., the individual words) or the syntactical structure (e.g., the language as a whole).

Barr's critique of the Biblical Theology Movement represents modernity's attack

on the premodern penchant to move from language to reality too fast. Barr insists that
language only refers to the world as mediated through the mind. There can be no
linguistic shortcut to God that bypasses historical criticism and authorial intention. Barr
writes: “Modern biblical theology in its fear and dislike of the 'proposition' as the basis of
religious truth has often simply adopted in its place the smaller linguistic unit of the
word, and has then been forced to overload the word with meaning in order to relate it
to the 'inner world of thought.'” 21
(b) Old Vienna and Old Princeton: Wittgenstein and Warfield.

Kant's turn to the subject has produced mixed results in modern biblical
scholarship. On the one hand, as we have seen, modern biblical critics have redirected
their attention to the mentality of the human authors and to “what it meant.” Meaning is
still reference, though now the reference to the world is always indirect, that is, through
the mind of the author. For other modern scholars, however, the turn to the subject
constitutes a dangerous turn towards subjectivity. Modernity is a victim of its own
position: To conceive of the language-world relation with the categories of objectivity
and subjectivity is to be doomed always to be veering between the one pole and the
other. Does language represent the self's thought (subjectivity) or the world itself
(objectivity)? James Barr is typical of much modern biblical criticism in his insistence that
one only reaches the objective (what actually happened) through the subjective (what it
meant). Not all biblical critics, or philosophers for that matter, however, have been as
sanguine about making the mind and its thought-forms the source of the world's

(i) Interpretation and logical positivism. Ludwig Wittgenstein's early philosophy of

language is an outstanding example of modernity's quest for objectivity. Wittgenstein,
together with Bertrand Russell, a colleague at Cambridge, was concerned to render
ordinary language less misleading. Like other modern thinkers, Wittgenstein was under
the impression that the job of a word was to name a thing, and that the chief
occupation of sentences must be to picture states of affairs. Why cannot all language be
as clear as the language of logic and mathematics, he wondered. Why indeed? Upheld
by this ideal of a formal language that would perfectly mirror the world, Wittgenstein
argued that every proposition corresponds to a basic fact in the world. A fact is a state
of affairs, and a state of affairs is a combination of objects. 22 The world is made up of
the sum total of facts. Wittgenstein's basic insight is that language pictures facts. If the
picture agrees with reality, then it is true. 23 As to thought, it is a logical picture of facts,
and a proposition is an expression of a thought. The purpose of language is to formulate
true propositions, that is, to paint a verbal picture of or to represent the world. 24
Meaning is a matter of reference, but for Wittgenstein reference must always be to a
factual state of affairs: “A name means an object. The object is its meaning.” 25
Wittgenstein's early philosophy of language has been called “logical atomism” to
highlight the central place he accords to propositions that picture basic facts. An object
is like an “atom.” What is “logical” is the ordering of objects and names. A true
proposition thus pictures a state of affairs, that is, a set of objects and their
arrangement (e.g., “The book is on the table”).

Wittgenstein wrote his Tractatus in Austria during World War I. Soon after, a
group of philosophers in Vienna seized upon Wittgenstein's work and used it as a basis
for a whole philosophy—Logical Positivism. According to this philosophy, the nature of
language itself rendered metaphysics—the study of ultimate reality—logically impossible.
As Wittgenstein had shown, language referred only to states of affairs in the world.
Metaphysics attempts to go beyond experience. But if language cannot speak of that
which exceeds experience, then metaphysics, strictly speaking, has literally nothing to
say. Accordingly, the Vienna Circle formulated the “Verifiability Criterion of Meaning.”
Reference now becomes a criterion for meaning: Unless we can show how and to what
we refer, what we say is meaningless. For a sentence to be meaningful, it must be
possible, at least in principle, to verify it—to check it against experience. The world is
limited to what we can sense (empiricism), and language is rendered clearer by means
of logic—hence the name Logical Positivism. Meaning is swallowed up by empirical
reference. We are still working with a picture theory of language, only now what
language imitates can never be heavenly realities, as Plato thought, but only what can
be verified and falsified by science. 26 As we shall see, Wittgenstein later came to be his
own harshest critic, rejecting his attempt to clarify ordinary language and coming to see
instead that ordinary language has its own kind of logic.

(ii) Interpretation and biblical positivism? At first blush, it may seem odd to pair
Old Princeton—the thought of such theologians as Benjamin Warfield and Charles
Hodge—with Old Vienna and logical positivism. However, both James Barr and David
Kelsey have accused the Princetonians (and implicitly, several generations of
conservative biblical scholars as well) of succumbing to a kind of “biblical atomism” or
“biblical positivism.”27 Barr and Kelsey suggest that the Princetonians unwittingly held to
a distinctly modern philosophy of language, namely, one that privileges meaning as
reference, and this despite their high view of biblical authority and their antimodernist

According to Barr, a theory of meaning as reference is presupposed every time

the biblical narratives are read as history. Barr says that evangelicals tend to assume
that the meaning of the biblical narrative lies in historical events. It is hermeneutically
unwarranted, however, to insist that all biblical sentences must convey information. Barr
believes that it is inerrancy that forces evangelicals to assume that every biblical
statement corresponds to some “fact” in the world. I suggest, against Barr, that it is not
the doctrine of inerrancy so much as a modernist philosophy of language that equates
meaning with reference that does so. It is a theory of meaning as reference, not of
biblical truth, that ultimately leads the Princetonians to privilege the proof-texting
method. A proof text is simply a “biblical atom”—a proposition that pictures a fact.

With regard to theology and the interpretation of Scripture, then, the

Princetonians resembled the logical positivists, though their primary source of data was
not empirical experience but biblical propositions. As Hodge stated: “The Bible is to the
theologian what nature is to the man of science. It is his storehouse of facts.”28
Warfield, similarly, interpreted the Bible as a verbal means of access to the facts of
Christianity: “What Christianity consists in is facts that are doctrines, and doctrines that
are facts.”29 Both Hodge and Warfield believed God had so constituted the mind so as to
enable it to apprehend the facts as they are.30

Hodge considers theology a science because it examines biblical facts and

arranges them in a logical order. To be precise, theology is an inductive science that
aspires to the same kind of objectivity as that found in the natural sciences. The man of
science, be he physicist or theologian, must assume the trustworthiness of his sense
perceptions and the trustworthiness of his mental operations. Lastly, the inductive
approach derives principles (theories) from the facts and does not impose them upon
the facts. Hodge assumes, in short, that interpretation is not necessary; it is enough to
observe and deduce. The Princetonians differed, of course, from the members of the
Vienna Circle in their conception of reality; for Warfield and Hodge language can refer to
the supernatural as well as the natural. But in their attitude towards language and
meaning, Princeton and Vienna concur: The meaning of language is the facts to which
they refer.

Word and Sign. Postmodernity and the Indeterminacy of Meaning

With the advent of postmodernity we have perhaps to speak of the turn away
from the subject and of the turn towards language. For according to a number of
postmodern thinkers, what gives rise to definitions and determinate reality is not the
world itself, nor the subject who assigns names, but rather language itself. It is
language that shapes both the world and our thought about the world. Language is less
a mirror than a screen that pictures reality, not in the sense of representing it but rather
of inventing it.

(a) Derrida's Poststructuralism

Deconstruction, a movement associated with Jacques Derrida, is perhaps the

most significant of the postmodern approaches to language and theology. In order to
make sense of Derrida and deconstruction, we have first to discuss the structuralist
approach to language.

As we have seen, for both the Platonists and propositionalists, truth is a matter
of correspondence to the real. Language is true when it faithfully represents the
real—either the Idea (for Plato) or the empirical (for the positivist). The Swiss linguist
Ferdinand de Saussure worked out a very different account of language. He saw a word
as a sign that means what it means not because it represents an object, but because it
differs from other signs. For example: “hot” means what it means because it differs from
“lot,” “cot,” or “dot,” as well as from “cold,” “lukewarm,” and “tepid.” Unlike Plato, who
saw sounds imitating things, Saussure suggested that what makes a sign determinate is
its place in a system of signs. A word does not resemble anything else but another
word. The few, mostly minor, exceptions prove the rule. Words acquire meaning not by
representing things but by differing from other words. Meaning is thus a matter of
absences rather than presences, of arbitrary conventions rather than natural imitations.
And, most important, what a person can say (parole ) is limited, perhaps even
determined by, the possibilities of the language system (langue ) in which one works.
The way to study language, according to Saussure, is to examine the structure of the
language system. The actual use of language in the world (parole ) is eclipsed by the
world of language alone (langue). Language here swallows up both mind and world.

Derrida's poststructuralism takes Saussure's insights into language one step

further—a step that unfortunately leads one to the brink of an abyss, if not actually over
it. While agreeing that language is made up of differences between signifiers, Derrida
rejects Saussure's idea that these differences can be contained in a system. Not only is
meaning a function of differences, it is also deferred, because the play of signifiers
never comes to an end. Signs refer to signs refer to signs, ad infinitum. Signs never do
come to rest, never do cast anchor onto the real world. On the contrary, language is an
ever-changing social construct that forcefully imposes different determinations onto the
world, which has no more definition than a blank slate.

There is a certain despair of language in much postmodern thought. According to

the poststructuralist, one can only stabilize sense and fix reference by an illegitimate use
of force that imposes a sense of closure on language, which language, by its very
nature, inherently resists. Derrida criticizes all attempts to bring the play of language to
a halt. He calls the attempt to find some stable reference point outside of language
“logocentrism.” Platonism and positivism, despite their vast differences, share an
underlying logocentrism, insofar as each position tries to ground language in the world.
Deconstruction is an attempt to display the groundlessness of language. It is the
undoing of the covenant between language and reality that has characterized Western
philosophy's belief that we can speak the truth.

Derrida's philosophy is significantly informed by literary criticism. Literary critics

view the language-world relation quite differently from historians and traditional
philosophers. For Erich Auerbach, for instance, the meaning of a literary work is not that
to which it refers.32 Rather, a literary work creates its own world; a story is its own
meaning. Form and content are inseparable. Without the story, one simply does not
have the meaning of, say, Henry James' novel Portrait of a Lady. More significantly, one
does not have the referent, the lady mentioned in the title, without the story. She simply
does not exist apart from the whole story. In Derrida's terms, all we have are such
“texts.” All uses of language, not only the poetic, are similarly textual. For Derrida, both
the world and the mind are ineradicably textual, that is, structured by language, which is
to say by an arbitrary set of social conventions. Whereas modern thinkers like Descartes
began philosophy in human consciousness (“I think, therefore I am”), Derrida claims
that consciousness itself is structured by language. Though we may think that we use
words to express thoughts, Derrida maintains that the way we think is determined by
the language we use. Writing (by which he means the system of language) precedes
speech (by which he means a person's conscious use of language).

If language is a product of social forces and political power that imposes

ideologies (e.g., systems of hierarchically organized distinctions) onto ultimately
unknowable things, then perhaps Cratylus was right: We may as well point at things
rather than try to speak of them. Even worse, if language is no longer an adequate
medium of communication, human intercourse may degenerate into the making of
inarticulate gestures—either threatening or defensive—as persons seek to negotiate a
common world without the benefit of common words. For the postmodern
poststructuralist, language is less a neutral medium of thought than thought's hostile
and polluted environment.

(b) Don Cupitt's Aesthetic Antirealism

Increasingly, biblical scholars and theologians are showing every sign of

accepting postmodernity's view of the language-world relation.33 The operative term
now is neither imitation nor information, but indeterminacy. If words do not have a
determinate meaning, however, the very idea of a definition is called into question.
Don Cupitt is one such theologian who rejects both fixed definitions and fixed
essences in the name of creative indeterminacy. We simply have no access to a world of
timeless essences, he says. Like other intellectual disciplines—such as physics,
psychoanalysis, and literary criticism—theology too must begin to dismantle its object of
study. Of course, from another angle, undoing may look like a process of continual
redoing. And this is precisely what Cupitt thinks theology should be about: reinventing
faith for our time, engaging in make-believe. Words, says Cupitt, do not hook up to
things. Words refer to other words and in this way generate a meaningful world. In
other words, what gives reality shape or determinate meaning are the distinctions we
draw and articulate in words. In Welsh, for instance, the color spectrum is divided up
differently than in English. The color glas (blue) includes elements that in English would
be called green or gray. In learning its native language the child learns a set of
differentiating concepts that identify not given entities but socially constructed
signifieds.34 Whereas for Plato words imitate things, one might say that for the
postmodernist, things imitate words.

The postmodernist does not believe in a “super-language” that gives us the true
story. Indeed, Franç ois Lyotard defines the postmodern condition in terms of an
“incredulity towards metanarratives.”35 That is, the postmodern thinker no longer
believes that we can attain a perspective outside of and above language from which we
can then check to see if our language really does correspond to the way things are or
not. Reality is merely “the sum of all that our language makes generally accessible and

For Cupitt, the way forward for theology is to accept that its language is
essentially aesthetic and creative. Instead of trying to speak truly, we should be more
concerned with speaking creatively, in ways that make human experience meaningful.
Theology's task is to develop symbols and metaphors that will enable us to dwell
meaningfully in the world. Cupitt neatly reverses Hodge: Theories invent facts and
impose forms upon them. We have no access to the world as it is apart from some
language or other. To inhabit a language is to abandon all attempts to attain a God's-
eye point of view. Again, it is not that words imitate the world, but that the world
imitates words. Socrates' notion that sounds imitate things, which Cupitt dubs the “bow-
wow theory” of language, got it backwards: “Words shape the way we see the world,
we fancy that the world has shaped our words. In reality, language determines
perception.” 37

God, Language, and Literary Theory:

What's Theological About Language and Hermeneutics?

The Fundamental Issue: Realism and Nonrealism

Ought language represent reality? Can it? Questions about language and
meaning are inextricably tied up with larger philosophical and theological issues. What
dictionaries were thought to be and do has changed over time. In the ancient world, the
dictionary gave insight not only into language but ultimately into things themselves, not
only spoken and written words but the real world. For both Plato and Augustine,
language is true when it imitates the world. In more modern times, words give us
insight into what people are feeling and thinking, into an individual's mind.38 Henceforth,
philosophers would guard against mistaking the linguistic description for the thing itself.
With postmodernity's turn towards language, the gap between language and world
becomes an unbridgeable “ugly ditch” : The dictionary tells us not how language
represents the world or human thought, but rather how language shapes and
determines human thinking, and thus what we take to be the world.39 Language is less a
window onto the world or a mirror of the soul than it is a system that shapes both the
world and subjectivity. The disappearance of the third-person-masculine singular
pronoun as a term for humanity in general is not only a lexical but a political event. Our
brief survey confirms the thesis that the various methods of biblical interpretation are
compelling for those who practice them because of the underlying worldview that they
presuppose.40 One's understanding of the relation between language and reality
ultimately involves theological assumptions. This brings us back to my initial twofold
claim that theology has to do with language and that language has to do with theology.

Let us return to the idea of a definition. To define something is to determine

what something is: its nature, character, and outline. In its ocular sense, “definition” has
to do with clarity, with the distinctness of an object or image. But a word can have a
clear definition only if the thing in the world that it names has a determinate nature. The
alternative would lead to Cratylus' position: If things do not have a fixed nature,
definitions are no good; we could only point with our fingers at the flux. Two larger
questions, therefore, haunt our discussion of language: (1) Are things in the world
determinate? (2) If reality is determinate, what makes it so? What stamps a determinate
nature onto things so that language can speak truly of them? Is it God, human
subjectivity (e.g., reason), social convention, or perhaps artistic creation (e.g.,
language)? Does the world (and God) have a fixed character, or do human speakers
differentiate the world (and God) by inventing linguistic distinctions?

To repeat my thesis: Views of language presuppose views of God (or of God's

absence). In the premodern world, the nature of reality was fixed and revealed by God.
In early modern philosophy, reality was thought to have an eternal order that was
knowable by reason. In later modern philosophy, Kant suggested that what reason
knows is its own workings on experience, not the world itself. In our postmodern
context, the tendency is to radicalize Kant's insight and to follow Nietzsche by saying
that we can never get beyond our languages to an extralinguistic reality. The challenge
today is to explain how language can be used to talk truly about reality.

Today little is taken as “given,” since everything is thought to be

constructed—“graven.” The world—the sum total of “natural” kinds and “natural” orders,
not to mention the explicitly cultural ones—is now thought to be a product of our
language systems. Instead of language mirroring the way things are, the world is rather
like a blank screen onto which language projects its system of distinctions.
Nonrealism—the position that there is no such thing as a real world independent of
language—takes an implicitly theological (or rather, countertheological) position.
According to the nonrealist, not only is there no God's-eye point of view, but God is
absent. That is, there is no reference point from which to make true distinctions and
definitions. For the nonrealist, the world simply does not exist independent of our
linguistic representations of it. This is the sense in which one must understand Derrida's
maxim: “There is nothing outside the text.” There is, in other words, no determinate
reality that stands “over against” our language systems. Cupitt readily acknowledges the
consequences of the notion that thought is radically dependent on, perhaps even
determined by, language. He calls his position “semiotic materialism,” to underline his
thesis that language is a mind-shaping and world-creating social force. 41

Cupitt's view of language is consistent with his nonrealist faith:

“‘Reality’?—feelings fixed by conventional noises, and systematized.” 42 Being
postmodern means facing up to the fact that language is free-floating, grounded neither
in the world, nor in reason, nor in revelation. It means facing up to the arbitrariness of
all our talk, including our God-talk. For the nonrealist, God has no being or definition
apart from the language we use to speak of him. Nonrealists thus think of meaning the
way Feuerbach thought of God: Both meaning and God are merely projections of
language. 43 Cupitt, mindful of the creative nature of language, thus calls for Christians
to reinvent faith for their time, to formulate new images and metaphors for talking
about God, that is, about our highest human aspirations. The crisis and confusion in
contemporary theories of language, literature, and interpretation is directly related to
the crisis in contemporary theology. Why is theological nonrealism a threat? Because it
means that there is no extralinguistic reality—God—that can serve as a criterion and
check for what we say and do in the name of God. The word “God” is the ultimate
designer label, the supreme sanction for moral values and political programs. It is
precisely because the word “God” is so powerful that theology is necessary—to make
sure that talk of God corresponds to the way God really is as revealed in the event of
Jesus Christ as attested in the Scriptures.

Language and Theology: The Analogy of Being and the Analogy of Faith

As John Macquarrie reminds us, “Theology is language,” inasmuch as theology is

“reasoned talk about God.”44 But how can language have to do with God? For much of
its history, theology's primary concern has been with its own possibility, with how its
words are related to an original Word of God. Two examples of how views of language
and views of God are mutually supportive must suffice. Each tries to take account of the
fundamental problems of presence and absence—of how human words can refer to God
truly and of how the reality of God ultimately transcends human language.

(a) Thomas Aquinas and the Analogy of Being

Twelfth-century theologians were among the most sophisticated with regard to

their understanding of the relation of language to theology. Their primary problem was
how human words could signify God. As G. R. Evans observes: “Unless we can show
that what we are saying has some meaning in connection with God, or that it refers to
him in some way, we cannot be sure that we are saying anything about God at all. We
may be talking about an imaginary being.”45 If language is humanly devised, a system of
social conventions, as many of the medieval theologians believed, how can it refer to

When we say “God is good,” does “good” mean the same as it means when
applied to creatures (in which case God loses his transcendence and is reduced to an
earthly object), or does it mean something entirely different (in which case we do not
know what it means)? Thomas Aquinas evades this either-or and suggests that some
words may be used analogically of God. 46 If a thing can be a sign for God, there must
be some similarity between the thing and God. If there were not, then how could, say,
fatherhood or kingship be meaningful terms to ascribe to God? Language about things
may be applied analogously to God insofar as the created things share certain qualities
(e.g., perfections such as goodness, justice, beauty, etc.) with their Creator, though only
to a lesser degree.

Aquinas's view of language thus relies on a picture of how God is related to the
world. God is present in the world as the source of Being.47 Aquinas claims, reasonably
enough, that we can only speak of God as we know him, but then he goes on to say
that “we know him from creatures.”48 God is the ground of being, the source of all that
is. God is the reference point for all that is. He is the transcendent Presence and
perfection that creaturely things analogically (and thus imperfectly) represent. Aquinas
states: “When we say God is good or wise we do not simply mean that he causes
wisdom or goodness, but that he possesses these perfections transcendently.”49 The
confidence that language may refer analogically to God is based on the analogy of being
that posits a similarity between creaturely reality and the Creator. What creatures and
Creator share is Being, though God is the highest Being, endowed with all the
perfections of Being, and has Being in and of himself.50 “Good” has the meaning it has
only because there is an extralinguistic reference point (viz., the goodness of God) that
fixes language (viz., the term “good”). The analogy of being thus accords with a natural
theology that maintains that we can say true things about God on the basis of our
experience of and reflection about nature.51

(b) Karl Barth and the Analogy of Faith

Karl Barth conceives of the presence of God very differently from Aquinas and
thus provides another instructive example of how one's view of God and one's view of
language each have a bearing on the other. Barth rejects the analogia entis as a
massive theological error. Natural theology implies that God is in fundamental continuity
with the world and so denies the “wholly otherness” of God. Barth's dialectical theology,
on the other hand, affirms an “infinitive qualitative difference” between God in heaven
and eternity on the one hand and humanity on earth and in time on the other. But if
God is wholly other than the world, how then can human language speak of God truly?
Barth's short answer is: It cannot. Left to its own devices, human language can speak
only of the world. Dialectical theology prevents any illegitimate or premature synthesis
of God and humanity from the human side. However, there is nothing to stop human
language from revealing God from God's side. Barth's dialectical theology therefore
recognizes an analogia fidei (analogy of faith)—an analogy “from above,” initiated by
divine grace. Only in this way can God remain God (e.g., the wholly other) as well as the
referent of human words.52

Barth's dialectical theology appears to lead to two incompatible views of human

language. On the one hand, human talk about God, like justification by works,
degenerates into a hopeless human activity—the meaningless play of signifiers. Barth
accepts the Kantian point that concepts, or in this case language, always intrude on the
relation between the human knower and the object of knowledge. If left to its own
devices, Barth seems to imply, language is as the poststructuralists conceive it—an
indeterminate play of signs. Only by God can God be known. Only in the act of
revelation do the words of Scripture disclose the Word of God. For Barth, human words
only refer to God when God in his revelation uses them to do so. 53 Only by reading in
faith, through an analogia fidei, can we follow the biblical word from sense, from what it
says, to referent, to what it is about.

The goal of biblical interpretation for Barth is to discern the Word in the words.
“Without revelation there can only be semantic agnosticism—for all acts of signification
make arbitrary connection between words and what is.”54 God's language, on the other
hand, is wholly adequate to its object. Without divine activity, however, the process of
interpreting the Scriptures is short-circuited. “That human language can become a
bearer of divine revelation is a divine possibility, not a human possibility.”55 Exegetical
labor alone cannot catch the sacred fish. Successful reference—the disclosure of the
Word by the words—is ultimately God's own achievement in the interpreter. If there is
revelation—successful reference to the Word—it is not a function of the Bible's language
so much as an event of divine grace.

Barth's view of God gives rise to a particular view of language and interpretation:
the analogia fidei. The theological motive behind Barth's refusal of the analogy of being
is his concern to forestall any kind of linguistic natural theology. God would not be God if
he could be the referent of human discourse or if he could simply be read off of the
biblical texts. As wholly other, God is hidden in his revealedness; only in this way can
God be Lord of the process of revelation. The unresolved question for Barth concerns
the status of the economy of signification (viz., language): Is it a God-given gift, or a
sinful postlapsarian product that has nothing to do with God? Is language human or
divine in origin? Barth seems to be saying both: Language is socially constructed and
divinely elected, both arbitrary and adequate in relation to the reality of God. Behind
Barth's view of language lies his view of God as dialectially present: hidden to reason,
revealed to faith. Both Barth and Aquinas seek a view of language that does justice to
divine immanence (presence) and transcendence (absence) alike. For Aquinas, God's
presence is the stable ground of Creation, whereas for Barth, God's presence is more
dynamically conceived, a revealing presence only to an active faith.56

Literary Theory as a Theology?

Is hermeneutics without theological presuppositions possible? Whereas Bultmann

argued that exegetical work always involves presuppositions, I would go further and
claim that our hermeneutical theories themselves are dependent on theologies (or
atheologies). If I am right, then we should expect to find some sort of correlation
between various theological positions (e.g., classical theism or natural theology,
dialectical theology, pantheism, etc.) on the one hand, and various approaches to
interpretation (e.g., feminism, historicism, deconstruction, etc.) on the other. I turn to
poststructuralist literary theory as the chief exhibit in defense of this working hypothesis.
(a) The Death of the Author

Deconstruction, it has been said, is the death of God put into hermeneutics.57 For
Derrida, presence—the presence of meaning, an author, God—is always illusory, an
effect or projection of writing. Without an Author, the world has no fixed meaning;
without the author, the text has no fixed meaning. God's death in the nineteenth
century precipitated the author's death in the twentieth century—a similarly theological
event. “Both deaths attest to a departure of belief in authority, presence, intention,
omniscience and creativity.”58 Derrida and other deconstructionists celebrate the death
of the author as a counter-theological event which frees the reader for creative play.59

To declare the author dead is to abandon the search for a stable home for
linguistic meaning. For Barthes and Foucault, the death of the author means that there
is nothing outside the play of writing that guarantees determinate sense or that our
words refer to the world. The turn to language involves a turn away from the subject:
The author's consciousness is no longer thought to be able to control the sense and
reference of his words. Consequently, the author has lost all “authority”—the ability to
say of x that it is y, the power of say-so.

With the death of the author comes the birth of the reader. Readers benefit from
the power vacuum that follows from the author's absence. It is the reader's will-to-
power that bestows meaning on texts. Derrida agrees with Nietzsche: If God (stable
meaning) does not exist, it would be necessary to invent him (it). This is precisely the
role of the reader: to create meaning out of a sea of indeterminate signs. Atheism thus
leads to nonrealism in literary theory and philosophy alike. In much literary theory, God,
self, and world are all alike reduced to modes of textuality.60 In Derrida's words: “There
is nothing outside the text.”61

(b) Hermeneutics or Grammatology?

Derrida, to his credit, acknowledges the tie between hermeneutics and theology.
“The sign and divinity have the same place and time of birth. The age of the sign is
essentially theological.”62 The sign is theological insofar as it is taken to represent
presence, that is, insofar as it is a sign of an extralinguistic reality that transcends it.
Meaning, and hermeneutics in general, is theological insofar as it refers to the belief that
there is something in what we say, that is, if it refers to the belief that our God-talk is
not merely talk about talk but talk about God. Derrida, however, pits grammatology over
against hermeneutics. Grammatology is the “science of writing,” that is, the study of
signs in their material and differential relation to one another rather than of the relation
between signs and things or thoughts. It is the dream of hermeneutics that meaning
(the transcendental signified) will somehow be made present through the process of
deciphering signs. Grammatology is to language as atheism is to religion; it reminds us
that there is only writing, only absence, only signs referring to other signs—never voice,
presence, or the fullness of being.

George Steiner, another literary critic, agrees that meaning is ultimately a

theological affair yet claims, against Derrida, that the actual practice of speaking and
writing necessarily presupposes a belief in meaning: “Any coherent account of the
capacity of human speech to communicate meaning and feeling is, in the final analysis,
underwritten by the assumption of God's presence.” 63 Steiner admits that the sense of
an other's “real presence” in language may be only a rhetorical flourish, as the
deconstructionists say, rather than “a piece of theology,” but any significant encounter
with the text as other must make a wager of faith in transcendence. 64 Interpretation is
“theological” for Steiner because he believes that there is something that transcends the
play of signs in language. The alternative for Steiner is a “deconstructionist and
postmodernity counter-theology of absence,” where the reader discovers only herself. 65

Biblical Exegesis, Theology, and Hermeneutics:

What Are We Interpreting?

What precisely are we after as linguists or interpreters? “Meaning” is too glib an

answer, for what is the meaning of meaning? Krister Stendahl drew what has become a
celebrated distinction between “what it meant” and “what it means” in order to
distinguish the respective tasks of biblical and systematic theology. 66 It is the role of the
biblical theologian to describe “what it meant” for the original authors and readers. The
systematic theologian's job is to find a suitable language and conceptuality to explain
“what it means” in a manner faithful to the text and intelligible to contemporary culture.
But what, we may ask Stendahl, is “it” ? Is “it” a word, and meaning its definition,
perhaps the thing it refers to? This, by and large, was the answer of premodern biblical
scholars. Subsequent suggestions for what we are trying to describe include the things
referred to historically, the things referred to allegorically, and the thoughts of the
original authors. To ask what interpreters are after is thus to raise two questions: “What
is meaning?” and “Of what precisely are we asking the question of meaning?”

From Semiotics to Semantics

What has emerged from our survey of views of language—from premodern

imitation theories through the modern focus on language as information about empirical
or subjective reality to the postmodern emphasis on indeterminacy—is that the object of
study has been, for the most part, either isolated words or the language system as a
whole. Interpretation has gravitated more towards signs and systems of signs than
sentences, towards langue rather than parole. To put it yet another way: To this point
we have been examining semiotics rather than semantics. We have seen the importance
accorded to signs as imitations of things, of signs as expressions of thought, and of
signs as constituent elements in what is ultimately an arbitrary language system. And
whether the emphasis was on words as imitative, informative, or indeterminate, all the
theorists assumed that the major task of language was to refer to the world. Where
theorists differed was over whether they thought language was up to its task. To
generalize, the question of reference (ideal, historical, indeterminate) has swallowed up
the question of meaning. What is conspicuous by its absence is any study of signs as
used by human beings in particular contexts to accomplish specific tasks.

(a) Langue/parole; sign/sentence; semiotics/semantics.

“For me, the distinction between semantics and semiotics is the key to the whole
problem of language.” 67 I am inclined to agree with Ricoeur. While semiotics (the
science of signs or semeia ) focuses on linguistic rules and conventions, semantics
examines linguistic performance and intentions. For semiotics, meaning is a matter of
the relations between signs with the system of langue.

One may, of course, study words or texts as elements in a structure of language.

Similarly, one may study language systems as a whole in relation to the social and
political systems of which they are a part. The study of signs and codes (langue),
however, effectively ignores the speaking subject and the act of communication.
Semiotics studies language as constituting a self-contained world of its own. On this
view, systems of language perform an ideological function insofar as they shape how
people will differentiate and experience the extralinguistic world. Language, far from
being a neutral instrument for naming the world, is instead an indispensable instrument
of indoctrination. In learning a language a speaker also learns a system of differences
and distinctions—an ideology.

(b) Parole/sentences/semantics.

According to Ricoeur, speech—in particular, the sentence—introduces a level of

complexity and uniqueness that cannot be described by semiotics. He sees semiotics
and semantics “as the two sciences which correspond to the two kinds of units
characteristic of language, the sign and the sentence.” 68 The sentence is not merely a
larger sign but a distinct entity, requiring new methods of description. A sentence,
composed of at least a name and a vb., connects words in a synthesis that displays a
new level of complexity and requires a new and higher level of description than the
semiotic. Though one can analyze a sentence and break it down into its constituent
parts, a sentence “is a whole irreducible to the sum of its parts.” 69 Ricoeur defines
semantics as “the science of the sentence.”

Language and Literature: The Covenant of Discourse

As the function of words in premodernity and modernity has been to (a) name
things or (b) stand for or label thoughts, so the sentence has been thought to function
as a pictorial representation of a state of affairs. A picture of language as composed of
signs rather than sentences has held us captive. To focus on the semantics of
sentences, however, is to create a new picture of language as “discourse”—as
something someone says to someone about something. To conceive of language and
literature as discourse is to view speech and text as the communicative acts of
communicative agents. 70 John Fiske defines language as a means of communication, of
“social interaction through messages.” 71

(a) Language as discourse: an interaction theory.

Ludwig Wittgenstein was one of the first philosophers to free himself from the
picture of language as a means of referring to objects in the world. Wittgenstein saw
that language can be used for many different purposes and that there are a variety of
different “fits” between word and world. J. L. Austin similarly believed the task of the
philosopher was not to improve upon ordinary language by showing how it
corresponded to the world so much as to understand how it performed many other
tasks as well.72 Austin discovered the situation in which language was used was every
bit as important as the words themselves.

Discourse has to do with the actual use of words, with words in action. For the
sake of analysis, we may distinguish four levels of communicative action. (i) Locutionary.
While language systems are merely virtual, discourse pertains to an actual use of words.
The locutionary act refers to the act of saying something. 73 (ii) Illocutionary. Sentences,
besides saying something (e.g., identifying and predicating), also do something (e.g.,
warn, assert, promise, etc.). The illocutionary act refers to what we do when we say
something. 74 It is the illocutionary aspect of discourse that semiotics overlooks, to
damaging effect. For it is the illocution that makes a set of words into a particular type
of communicative action (e.g., an assertion, a question, a warning, a command, etc.).
The words “It's hot,” alone, are indeterminate; it is not clear what illocutionary act is
being performed, be it assertion, or warning, or promise. The words alone cannot render
the meaning determinate; the interpreter needs contextual clues before deciding what it
means. (iii) Perlocutionary. This dimension of communicative action refers to what a
speaker brings about by saying something. For instance, by asserting something, a
speaker may also persuade. (iv) Interlocutionary. Discourse is always addressed to
someone. Every illocutionary act is a kind of invitation to which the reader or listener is
invited to respond (e.g., by assent, by action, by further discourse, etc.). Thanks to
discourse, we are able to communicate meaning to one another. The interlocutionary
aspect of discourse reminds us that language is ultimately a medium for interpersonal

It follows from the nature of discourse that language is both a means for relating
to other persons and a means for relating to one's world. To speak is to incur certain
privileges as well as responsibilities vis-à-vis one's hearers and the world. To view
language as discourse is to see it as a medium for personal interaction. Speech or
parole, unlike langue, cannot be dissociated from its speaker. Take, for example, a
promise. Here the speaker explicitly implicates herself in what she says. As J. L. Austin
puts it: “Our word is our bond.” 75 There is, I believe, a similarly “covenantal” aspect in
all discourse. As agents of communicative action, authors are tied to their texts and
responsible for what they say. Words are instruments of communicative interaction.
Some communicative interactions concern the way the world is or the way the speaker
feels. Others pertain to the speaker's wishes or requests. Still others have to do with the
actions and promises of God. In all cases, our word is our bond: an intersubjective bond
between speakers and an objective bond between language and reality.

(i) Conventions and intentions. Meaning, as a function of the process of

communicative interaction, involves both intentions and conventions. On the one hand,
speakers cannot simply make their words mean what they want them to mean through
a sovereign intention. In this sense, the poststructuralists are right to call attention to
the fact that language precedes speech. Yet the mere existence of langue does not
condemn its speakers to some kind of linguistic determinism, for the speaker is able to
put the language system to different kinds of use. By invoking particular conventions,
speakers intend to communicate something and to make sure that their intention will be
recognized by others. The communicative agent intends to reach understanding through
the use of linguistic conventions. Discourse is thus an intersubjective phenomenon that
requires both subjective intentions and public (“objective”) conventions. By invoking a
particular linguistic or literary convention, an author enacts his or her intention and so
renders it public, a legitimate object of understanding. 76

(ii) Understanding or explanation? In the nineteenth century, Wilhelm Dilthey

developed a distinctive method for the human as over against the natural sciences. 77
The latter, he argued, seek explanations while the former seek understanding.
Explanation works with universal laws and is well-suited to studying the natural world.
Understanding, on the other hand, is the attempt to grasp the significance of human
experience and action, that is, the life of an individual. Dilthey believed hermeneutics to
be concerned with grasping the meaning, not the cause, of human action via its
expression in history: Both the deeds and the discourse of the past call for

Dilthey himself believed that the aim of the human sciences was to recover the
mind of the author, his or her psychic life. But this is to search for some meaning behind
the discourse. A better goal for interpretation is to seek the meaning of, not the motive
behind, the discourse. Understanding a discourse means grasping the meaning of the
whole considered as a communicative act. To understand a discourse is to apprehend
both its propositional content (e.g., the matter) as well as its illocutionary force (e.g.,
the energy). The illocutionary act is the touchstone, the aspect that breathes semantic
life into what otherwise would be a lifeless chain of signifiers. It is the illocutionary level
that distinguishes discourse from signs and language systems. Understanding is
essentially the recognition of one's illocutionary act. To understand discourse is to grasp
the nature and content of a communicative act, and this can only be done when the
illocutionary intent is recognized. Understanding discourse is, I suggest, the proper aim
of interpretation, for only on this level do we achieve understanding of the discourse as
a whole as opposed to knowledge of its elementary parts.

What effect does the newer picture of language as discourse have on the role of
a dictionary? If language is discourse, then dictionaries are best viewed as descriptions
of discourse, that is, as records of linguistic usage. A good dictionary usually lists several
entries for well-known words and is a good source of information for how words are,
and have been, habitually used. Dictionaries cannot, of course, anticipate how words will
be used in the future.

(iii) Divine speech acts. If, as I have claimed, theology informs views of language
and hermeneutics, what theology informs the present discussion of language as
communicative interaction (e.g., discourse)? This is a perfectly appropriate question.
The short answer is “evangelical” theology, where evangelical stands for theology
oriented to “good news”—news of divine action on behalf of the world. The gospel
concerns the communication of what has happened in the event of Jesus Christ.
Accordingly, the theology behind my view of language and interpretation is a theology of
communicative interaction. God's Word is something that God says, something that God
does, and something that God is. The God of the Christian Scriptures and Christian faith
is the kind of God that can enter into relation with human beings through Incarnation
and through verbal communicative action. 78 Moreover, the God portrayed in the
Scriptures has given to humans the dignity of communicative agency and communicative
responsibility. Consequently, meaning is first and foremost something persons do.

(b) Literature as discourse: the meaning of texts.

The text is an extended and unified discourse, fixed by writing. As such, it is a

complex whole, admitting of many kinds of investigation. Literary texts “are best viewed
as actions performed on a variety of levels for our contemplation.” 79 Texts are speech
acts of a higher order. They have mass (e.g., subject matter) and energy (e.g.,
illocutionary force). Like sentences, texts call for semantics, not just semiotics. As an
extended and unified discourse, a text calls for understanding, not merely analysis. One
cannot say that one has understood a biblical text, for instance, when one has parsed
every word or even after one has analyzed the overall structure. On the contrary,
understanding is only achieved when one interprets a text as a communicative act and
receives the message that the author has transmitted for our consideration.

What, for instance, is Paul doing in his letter to Ephesians? Several possible
answers come to mind: putting words together, dictating a letter, addressing the
Ephesians, sending greetings, reflecting on the significance of the event of Jesus Christ.
A historical approach that examines the situation behind the text could do justice to
some aspects of the communicative action but not others. A semiological approach could
do justice to others. If used exclusively, however, a semiotic study of Ephesians would
not merely explain but explain away, as all reductionistic theories always tend to do.
Much to be preferred is a description that incorporates the semiotic but then go on to do
justice to the semantic. For one cannot describe an action simply by describing its
components parts. It is one thing to describe an action as moving one's finger or
producing sounds, and another to describe the moving of one's fingers as performing a
Beethoven piano sonata. One cannot correctly understand a person's bodily movements
(or words) without reference to an agent's intentions. What we are ultimately trying to
understand as biblical interpreters, I would contend, is the intention enacted in the
text—the sense and significance of a communicative act. 80

Interpreting Scripture:
The Semantics of Biblical Literature

In the sixteenth century, renewed interest in the Bible's original languages

contributed to the Reformation. At the end of the twentieth century, we are on the
verge of a similar recovery, not of the languages but of the literature of the Bible. An
appreciation of the biblical texts as forms of extended discourse makes two important
contributions to biblical interpretation. It encourages us to treat biblical texts as certain
kinds of literary wholes (viz., genres). It also requires us to treat the literary form more
seriously, as the only access to the text's content. To claim that the proper object of
interpretation is neither individual words nor atomic proof texts but rather discourse is to
imply that biblical exegetes and theologians should attend to the whole text as a unified
though extended piece of discourse. 81
Literary Whole and Context: Sola Scriptura as a Hermeneutical Principle

To say that language and literature are forms of discourse does not solve all
interpretive problems. What, for instance, of the problem of indeterminacy of meaning?
It is one thing to say that meaning is communicative action, quite another to determine
what kind of communicative act has been performed. As with langue, so with parole:
The general principle is that context disambiguates. We know what sense to make of
“he's hot” once we are clear about the context: Is he lying on a bed in a hospital, in the
midst of a family argument, or playing a great game of tennis? The situation of a
discourse provides important interpretive clues.

But if the meaning of texts depends on their contexts, have we not simply
pushed the problem of semantic indeterminacy back one step, for who determines the
relevant context, and how? Derrida and other deconstructionist critics argue for a
pluralism of meanings precisely because texts have as many contexts as they have
readers. 82 The search for determinate textual meaning thus appears to founder on the
question of context. Which contexts makes texts determinate? How large a context must
we establish in order to interpret a text correctly? In reply to these questions, I contend
that the most important context for understanding biblical discourse is its literary (e.g.,
generic) and canonical context.

(a) The issue: sola scriptura and hermeneutical sufficiency.

“The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself.” 83 The

question is whether, and to what extent, the interpreter must have recourse to
extrabiblical information in order to interpret Scripture correctly. What is at stake is not
so much the material sufficiency of Scripture (e.g., does the Bible contain all things
necessary for salvation?) but rather what one could call the hermeneutical sufficiency of
Scripture. 84 According to the framers of the Westminster Confession of Faith, Scripture
itself is the best context for interpreting Scripture. In modernity and postmodernity alike,
however, interpreters have tended to provide Scripture with extrabiblical interpretive

(i) The reconstructed historical context. In his magisterial study of biblical

hermeneutics in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Hans Frei documents the loss
of the literal sense of Scripture in modern historical criticism. 85 Under the influence of
an antisupernaturalistic bias, many modern critics distinguished between the biblical
accounts and “what actually happened.” The effect of this critical distinction was to pry
apart the story from its meaning, the sense of the text from its historical reference.
Henceforth biblical interpretation meant reading the text in light of extrabiblical
information, which was thought to be more reliable. This led, ironically, to a confusion
between the biblical text itself and what lay behind it. Thus, the meaning of a biblical
text was thought to be its historical reference (e.g., the events to which it refers), and
the prime interpretive context, the critically reconstructed original situation. 86 Such was
the “great reversal” that took place, according to Frei, in modernity: “Interpretation was
a matter of fitting the biblical story into another world with another story rather than
incorporating that world into the biblical story.” 87 Frei particularly objects to historical
criticism's relative neglect of the most important context for determining meaning,
namely, the form of the text itself.

(ii) The context of the reader. A second mode of hermeneutical insufficiency is

characteristic of postmodern approaches to the Bible. We can read Exodus in its original
historical context (insofar as this can be established), or we can read it in the
contemporary context of Latin America or South Africa, of feminist or womanist
experience, of the poor (and the wealthy). According to the hermeneutical nonrealist,
however, there is no communicative perspective in the text itself; this is projected onto
the text by the reader. For all intents and purposes, therefore, it is the reader's aims and
interests that control the process of textual interpretation. The immediacy and intensity
of the contemporary context overpowers and overshadows the voice of the text. 88 Like
historical criticism, then, reader-oriented criticism makes sense of the biblical text only
by first placing the text in an extrabiblical context. Neither approach allows the text to
make sense on its own terms.

(b) Sola scriptura; tota scriptura.

The purpose of context is to disambiguate textual meaning. Is there a sense in

which Scripture may serve not only as its own interpreter, but also as its own context?

(i) The literary context. The immediate literary context of a biblical text has the
advantage of being both available and fixed. One does not have to search for the
literary context behind the text, as it were. The text itself is its own best context for
interpretation. Indeed, could it be that a text might only yield its meaning—its sense and
its reference—on its own terms? The biblical text itself is probably the best evidence
even for reconstructing the situation behind the text. The literary context is not only
necessary but often sufficient for the purposes of interpretation if it enables one to
answer the question, “What is the author doing here?” In other words, the contexts
relevant for the purposes of interpretation are those that enable the interpreter to
describe the nature of the communicative action under consideration (e.g., “ he's
prophesying;” “he's telling a story;” “he's composing a love song,” etc.). Conversely, the
most spectacular errors in interpretation are those that miss the prime communicative
function. For instance, those who read Gulliver's Travels as a children's story miss the
(primary) aspect of political satire. Similarly, those that read the book of Jonah as a
story about a great fish miss the (primary?) aspect of prophetic satire. 89

(ii) The narrative context. Hans Frei argues that the biblical narratives make
sense on their own terms. That is, they provide all the information and clues that the
interpreter needs in order to follow the story. For Frei, the meaning of the biblical story
is the story itself, not some history behind the story. Furthermore, we cannot gain the
message of the story apart from the story's form; the medium is the message. That is,
the meaning of the story is held within the story world, the sum total of characters and
events that figure in the story. There is no gap between the story and its meaning.
Following the biblical narratives is more than a matter of appreciating the story on its
own terms, however. It involves reading one's own world (or story) in light of the story
world of the biblical text. Frei calls this interpretive approach “intratextual” :
“Intratextual theology redescribes reality within the scriptural framework rather than
translating Scripture into extrascriptural categories. It is the text, so to speak, which
absorbs the world, rather than the world the text.” 90 Meir Sternberg argues similarly
that the OT narratives are interpretive frameworks that draw the reader and the reader's
world into the world of the text. 91

(iii) The canonical context. “Scripture interprets Scripture.” How large is a literary
context? On the one hand, there are sixty-six books, or literary wholes, in the Bible. On
the other hand, the scope of the biblical story reaches back to the beginning of time and
stretches forward to its conclusion. In the Gospels, the story of Jesus is a kind of
retelling of the story of Israel. 92 The rest of the NT examines the story of Jesus as the
story of the church, and of the whole cosmos. Because of its peculiar subject matter, the
acts of the one Creator-Covenant God, the biblical narratives take on the status of a
unified metanarrative. That means that the individual biblical stories have to be
interpreted in light of the set of stories taken together. The literary whole I now have in
mind is, of course, the Christian canon. 93 Childs argues that the canon provides the
appropriate context for biblical interpretation. Indeed, in his commentary on Exodus he
devotes a section to analyzing the material in light of its NT context. 94

Literary Whole and Content: Genre as Object and Form of Understanding

“Every piece of writing is a kind of something.” 95 It may be that the best way to
do justice to the principle that “Scripture interprets Scripture” is to focus not simply on
the literary context of Scripture but in particular on the distinctive way in which the
Bible's message is mediated by its literary forms. 96

(a) The centrality of literary genre.

A genre is a literary kind (“genus”), a conventional and repeatable pattern of

written discourse. 97 Genre thus refers to discourse of a higher order: to communicative
practices rather than to communicative acts: “A practice is any form of socially
established cooperative human activity that is complex and internally coherent ... and is
done to some end.” 98 To write in a certain genre, one might say, is to engage in a form
of rule-governed social practice. If understanding is a matter of recognizing the nature
of communicative action (e.g., what it is), and if the literary context is the best clue to
the meaning of the text as a whole, then identifying a text's genre is of the utmost
importance: “Our stance about the literary genre of the book determines our entire
interpretation of the book.” 99 Our decision as to a text's genre determines how we read
it: Do we read it as history or fiction, as prophecy or apocalyptic, as seriously intended
or ironic? In what follows I will present genres as communicative strategies for using
words to interact with other people and to engage reality.

(i) Form and meaning: following conventional rules. First, genres use words to
create larger verbal forms. E. D. Hirsch compares literary genres to games: “Coming to
understand the meaning of an utterance is like learning the rules of a game.” 100 This is
also the metaphor that Wittgenstein chose when he revised his earlier position on
language and interpretation. Each genre has its own rules for making sense. A reader
will achieve understanding only if he grasps the kind of game the text is playing. It is
not enough to know the meaning of individual words; one must have some sense of the
illocutionary point of the whole discourse. If the reader is not playing the same game, if,
say, history is read as if it were myth, then the result is misunderstanding. A generically
correct reading is one that follows the formal rules or conventions that make a
communicative act one kind of thing rather than another. Genre thus acts as a bridge
between the author's interpretive framework and that of the reader. For communication
to be successful, for meaning to be disambiguated, the generic context must be shared.

(ii) Form and function: following conversations. Second, genres create literary
form in order to facilitate social interaction. Language, as we have seen, is an
instrument for interpersonal interaction. Speech and writing are the chief means of
interpersonal interaction known to humanity. 101 In his Philosophical Investigations,
Wittgenstein denies that any one “language game” (e.g., referring) represents the
essence of language. On the contrary, there are as many ways of using language as
there are human activities, and many of these activities have developed their own rules
for using language, not to mention their own distinct vocabulary. Wittgenstein compared
words to tools: “Think of the tools in a tool-box: there is a hammer, pliers, a saw, a
screw-driver, a rule, a glue-pot, nails and screws. The function of words are as diverse
as the function of these objects.” 102 If words are like tools, then genres may be thought
of as the projects on which these tools are put to work. “Picturing reality” is only one
such project among many others.

Genres facilitate interpersonal interaction by offering relatively stable types of

communication. They are distinguished according to their prime communicative function
(e.g., love song, prophecy, history, apocalyptic). They offer the reader an interpretive
framework with which to process their particular content. Once one knows that one is
listening to sports commentators rather than political commentators, it is easier to follow
their respective discourse. Interpreting genre thus requires a certain sensitivity to the
social situations in which particular forms of language (and literature) are employed.

(iii) Rationality and reference: following routes to the real. Lastly, literary genres
are adapted not only to serve particular social functions but also to engage with and
think certain aspects of reality more than others. Literary genres are not only
communicative but cognitive strategies. Each genre constitutes a distinct mode of
cognition, a unique form for thinking about (and experiencing) the world in ways that,
without it, would not be possible. This insight exposes the shortcomings of the proof-
texting method; biblical texts yield not only propositional information, but ways of seeing
and processing information. Literary genres are verbal maps, each with its own “key”
and “scale.” The “key” tells you what a piece of discourse is about. Just as there are
different kinds of maps—of roads, of geological characteristics, of historical incidents, of
the stars—so different literary genres select and attend to various features of reality
more than others. 103 Similarly, every literary genre has its own “scale” or manner of
fitting words to the world. The aim of history, for instance, is to make our words fit or
correspond to the world, viz., the past; the aim of utopias is to make the world fit or
correspond to our words. The point is that words do not naturally refer to reality in
uniform fashion. Rather, every genre has its own conventions and strategies for relating
to the real.
(b) The centrality of narrative.

Among the various genres in Scripture, none illustrates the significance of literary
form better than narrative. Narrative is an indispensable cognitive instrument for
learning about the world, the identity of Jesus Christ, and our own identity as Christians.

(i) With regard to the world, what we know, by and large, is not a set of discrete
propositions or items of knowledge, but particulars that form part of a larger story. This
is as true of science as of theology. Our theories are not abstract views from nowhere,
but concrete views from where we are in our particular histories and traditions. Theories
are stories that cultures believe in. According to N. T. Wright, knowledge occurs “when
people find things that fit with the particular story or (more likely) stories to which they
are accustomed to give allegiance.” 104 Stories, in other words, provide an indispensable
interpretive framework through which we view the world, ourselves, and God. When a
story claims to make sense of all others stories and the whole of reality, it becomes a

(ii) According to Frei, the Gospels are neither straightforward histories or myths
but rather “realistic narratives” whose intent is to render the identity of Jesus by relating
what he did and what happened to him. The meaning of a realistic narrative is “in large
part a function of the interaction of character and circumstances.” 105 Who Jesus is
inseparable from his actions and his passion. In other words, without the narrative we
would not be able to identify Jesus. The meaning is inextricably tied up with the story
form itself: “not illustrated (as though it were an intellectually presubsisting or
preconceived archetype or ideal essence) but constituted through the mutual, specific
determination of agents, speech, social context, and circumstances that form the
indispensable narrative web.” 106 Only the Gospel narratives can render Jesus' specific
uniqueness as a person, for personal identity, enacted over time, bears the shape of a

(iii) Narrative has to do with interpretation, lastly, insofar as the biblical story can
clash with and subsequently transform those stories that readers may prefer to tell
about themselves. Biblical interpretation is ultimately a dangerous enterprise, to the
extent that readers risk having their own identities challenged by what they read. This
critique of one's old understanding is the condition for a new understanding of God, the
world, and oneself. For the Christian interpreter is the one who reads the story of Israel,
and especially the story of Jesus, as his or her own story, that is, as constitutive of his or
her own identity. The apostle Paul understood himself in the light of the story of Jesus:
“I have been crucified with Christ” (Gal 2:20). The Bible calls, similarly, not only for
understanding but for personal appropriation on the part of interpreters. In other words,
Scripture calls for intratextual interpretation, where the interpreter's world is itself
interpreted in terms of the biblical text, as part of the biblical story. What is ultimately at
stake in biblical interpretation is not simply the meaning of the text, but the identity of
the interpreter.
Sacra Littera, Sacra Pagina, and Sacra Doctrina:
From Dictionary to Theology

The trajectory of interpretation, and of this essay, is from the letter through
literature to doctrine (and life). But what precisely is the relation between philology, the
study of words, and theology, the study of God? Just what is the connection between
the sacred letter, the sacred page, and sacred doctrine?

Literacy and the “Sacred Letter”

Throughout this essay I have assumed that biblical interpreters should strive for
literacy rather than letterism. What is interesting theologically happens on the level not
of the letter, nor of the word, but rather of the whole text. In other words, it is not the
word or the concept alone, but the word/concept as used in the context of the literary
whole that is the object of understanding. The general thrust of most contemporary
linguistics has been to demythologize etymologies. The letter has lost its sacred aura. 107

Does my argument render the notion of a theological dictionary contradictory?

Not at all. On the contrary, I have argued that language is a God-given human capacity
that enables complex communicative competence and interaction. The task of the
biblical interpreter is not to define individual terms but rather to achieve biblical literacy,
by which I mean not simply the ability to read and write, but above all the ability to
follow a text. Literacy in this sense refers to a certain body of background information, a
certain set of skills, and to an inclination on the part of the reader to recover, respect,
and respond to a text's communicative intention. Biblical literacy thus refers to
everything that the Christian reader needs to know and to do in order to follow the text
from page to practice. One important ingredient in this task is to know how biblical
words were habitually used in their particular historical, literary, canonical, and narrative
contexts. Another, equally important aspect of the interpretive task, however, is to
become familiar with the rules governing larger forms of biblical discourse, with the
diverse generic practices that comprise the Old and New Testaments.

Sense, Meaning, and the “Sacred Page”

If theology cannot be squeezed out of sacred letters, what about the “sacred
page” ? In medieval theology, to be a theologian was to be a master of the sacred page.
Thomas Aquinas, for instance, affirmed the content of the Bible as the place where
sacred teaching was to be found. He could thus speak of sacra scriptura and sacra
doctrina interchangeably. 108 According to modern biblical scholars, however, theology
may not simply be “read off” of the Bible, as though one could simply take over biblical
words today and be saying the same thing: “Theology is no longer simply biblical
interpretation.” 109 What then is the role of the sacred page?

(a) The page as collection of propositions.

The sacred page should not be confused with a reference book or a compendium
of theology, that is, with a collection of theological propositions. Nor should sacred
doctrine be confused with the attempt to substitute clearly formulated propositions for
the metaphors, stories, and other literary forms in Scripture. This would be to confuse
the Bible's meaning with its (ideal or historical) reference. The sacred page is not a
blank space on which inerrant propositions are arbitrarily parked, nor is it merely grist
for the propositional mill. The page, far from being a place on which to paste proof texts
or deduce propositions, is rather the context in which a group of sentences make sense
as a whole. It is important to bear in mind that the propositional function of language
(e.g., to make statements) is only one of many uses to which language can be put. 110
One of the functions of genre is to provide a clue as to what illocutionary force a given
proposition bears (e.g., is it part of a story, a parable, a warning, a question, etc.). Only
when one first determines the sense of a sentence can one then go on to inquire after
its truth. The sacred page may or may not be a page of information; that depends on
the kind of book of which the page is a part. According to Bernard Ramm: “Much harm
has been done to Scripture by those within and without the Church by assuming that all
statements in the Bible are on the same logical level, on which level they are either true
or false.” 111

(b) The page as pedagogue.

“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching ... and training in
righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16). I do not wish to deny that the sacred page contains sacred
teaching, that is, true information about God and God's actions in history. I do,
however, wish to call attention to the significance of other uses of biblical language and
literature. For to equate the sacred page with propositional information is to subscribe to
a picture theory of meaning that ultimately reduces the many ways in which Scripture is
profitable to one. Whereas the “meaning as reference” approach focuses on the
teaching or propositional aspect of Scripture, I believe that “meaning as communicative
action” better shows how the Bible can also be profitable for “training in righteousness.”

(i) Technology and the sacred page: savoir . Words are instruments of
communicative action. To focus on the nature of the instruments rather than what they
are being used for, however, is to lose the forest for the trees. Interpretation is neither
a matter of mere technical information about the text (e.g., textual criticism) nor even of
the propositional information a text conveys. Interpretation is about following texts, and
this involves practical know-how too. How do we learn to follow or understand
communicative action? It is just here that the notion of genre as a communicative
practice is significant. One masters a practice by learning its implicit rules, and one
learns the rules by participating in the practice (e.g., by engaging in a certain kind of
language or literature game).

(ii) Sanctification and the sacred page: connaître. “I would far rather feel
remorse than know how to define it.” 112 Biblical interpretation is a matter of
participating in the canon's communicative practices to the point of grasping not only
the conventions, but the point of the text. To take biblical narrative as an example: It is
not enough simply to know about the conventions that narrative employs.
Understanding biblical narrative means being able to dwell in what Ricoeur calls “the
world of the text,” and to read one's own life in terms of the biblical story. A text is not
understood until its discourse is appropriated. 113 The understanding reader must expose
himself or herself to the effects of the text. To use C. S. Lewis's well-known distinction:
The reader must not only “see” but “taste” the meaning of the text. 114 Understanding is
short-circuited when the interpreter achieves only seeing or apprehension (i.e., savoir,
or “objective knowledge about”) rather than tasting and appropriation (i.e., connaître, or
“knowledge by personal acquaintance”).

What is theologically normative in Scripture are not the words, nor even isolated
proof texts, but the various rules for conceiving and speaking about God embedded in
biblical genres. Each of the biblical genres engages with and leads us to divine reality,
albeit in different ways. The task of biblical theology is to make clear how the various
literary forms in the Bible are ways of seeing, and tasting, the reality of God. The Bible,
as a collection of books, functions as a pedagogue that teaches us not only what to say
about God, but when and where to say it, and under what conditions. Knowing how to
use ordinary words so that they say something true about God is to be “wise in speech.”
Christian thinkers today achieve theological wisdom when they have been trained in the
school of Scriptures and when they learn the grammar of faith—what is appropriate to
say about God in various literary and historical situations. Theological concepts are
learned by participating in the Bible's diverse communicative practices. We learn to think
about the end of history, for example, thanks to biblical apocalyptic. For the Christian,
Scripture is the school in which we learn to use terms like God, sin, and justification
correctly. To the extent that we participate in this use, the Bible effectively educates our
thoughts and feelings about God. It is not only narrative, but ultimately all the biblical
genres that come to absorb us. The sense of the sacred page, if followed, should lead to
the sanctification of the reader. 115

Reference, Truth, and “Sacred Doctrine”

To return to Cratylus' original question: Do words give us knowledge of the world

and the real? Can we talk about God truly?

(a) Reference: to the real and to the reader.

(i) To God. Though I have argued that meaning is not simply a matter of
reference, it does not follow that language cannot refer to God truly. However, what is
primarily true of God are not isolated words or concepts as representations of things or
thoughts, but rather sentences and discourses that serve as larger-scale models for
interpreting reality. 116 A theological concept is not a word or thought that pictures God,
but rather a mental skill that makes explicit what is implicit in the way God is
represented in a particular literary genre. A theological concept, in other words, is a way
of thinking that is learned through an apprenticeship to biblical literature. To take a
simple example: We learn the meaning of “the right arm of God” not by analyzing the
etymology of the words but by becoming sensitive to the metaphorical force of the
phrase and to the generic contexts in which it is used. When theological concepts are
abstracted from the canonical forms of discourse that generate them, they tend to lose
the specificity of their biblical meaning. It follows that our systems of theology must
remain tied to the biblical texts.

To be tied to the text need not imply that “there is nothing outside of the text.”
To say that reference to God is always through some metaphor or genre is not to deny
that such language really refers to God. If the sacred page is indeed the location of the
sacred teaching, we must affirm the language of the Bible to be true. The theological
view of language for which I have argued holds that language is a God-given instrument
that enables interpersonal interaction and engages with reality. I contend, with George
Steiner, that God ultimately underwrites language's ability to transcend itself, to speak
of what is more than language. At the same time, we must acknowledge that what we
find on the sacred page is often metaphors and other kinds of nonpropositional
discourse (as well as a good number of propositions). Both metaphors and literary
genres are cognitive instruments that help us to discover the real. Every genre refers
and predicates, but not in the same way. Metaphors and genres are nevertheless reality-
depicting. 117 The many forms of language and literature are the condition for helping us
to see aspects of reality that would otherwise go unnoticed.

The biblical text is the primary location of truth for Christians; the sacred page is
the sacred teaching. But what doctrines there are in Scripture do not always take
propositional form—in some case, the story is the doctrine, and the task of the
theologian is to render conceptually explicit the understanding that is implicit in the
narrative form. There is no unmediated access to the activity of God in ancient Israel or
to the activity of God in Jesus Christ. In order to have meaning and reference, we
cannot go around the text, only through it. I therefore agree with Francis Watson, who
argues for an “intratextual realism,” which, in his words, “would understand the biblical
text as referring beyond itself to extra-textual theological reality, while at the same time
regarding that reality as accessible to us only in textual form.” 118

(ii) To us. There is another kind of reference that should not be overlooked.
What we discover in interpreting Scripture is that the interpreter is included in the Bible's
claims and references in two ways. On the one hand, the world of which the Bible
speaks is our world. We, like Paul, are living “between the times,” in the eschatologically
charged interval between the first and second comings of Christ. On the other hand, the
claims that the Bible makes are often claims that impinge upon ourselves as readers.
That is, the Bible is a text that demands considerable reader response: The interpreter
must not only respect the author's intentions and literary conventions, but respond to
the issue of the text as well. What is being interpreted in the process of biblical
interpretation is not only the text (by the reader) but also the reader (by the text).

(b) Understanding as discipleship: biblical truth and practical wisdom.

(i) Canonical competence. Language, I have claimed, is a God-given capacity.

Part of what it means to be in the image of God is to enjoy the capacity of verbal
interaction. What Noam Chomsky attributes to an innate human capacity—the ability to
generate intelligible sentences—is from a Christian perspective a gracious privilege and
responsibility: the dignity of communicative agency. To be a responsible biblical
interpreter is to have achieved what we might term “canonical competence”—a
familiarity with the different ways in which the Bible names and speaks of God. 119
“Canonical competence” signifies the ability to relate biblical sentences vis-à-vis external
reality and the social world as their authors intended: to grasp the illocutionary point of
warnings as warnings, of promises as promises, of truth claims as truth claims, of
histories as histories. Canonical competence refers, in short, to the reader's ability to
follow the text from sense to reference. This is the first service of a theological
dictionary: to help readers to become biblically literate and canonically competent.

(ii) Theological interpretation as practical wisdom. Literary styles also lead to

styles of life. The forms of biblical discourse generate not only ways of seeing but also
ways of being in the world. Following the biblical text ultimately requires of the
interpreter a willingness to continue the semantic itineraries of the text: to appropriate
and apply biblical meaning to oneself. Biblical interpretation, at its best, therefore yields
not only theoretical knowledge but also practical wisdom. A theological dictionary
provides training in how to speak, and act, biblically. Furthermore, the competent
interpreter will know how to go on speaking about God in new contexts. The competent
interpreter will know how to continue the semantic itineraries of the biblical genres and
apply their ways of seeing and being in the world to the present. For instance, one who
is competent in biblical narrative will know how to continue the story in to the
contemporary context.

In providing definitions—guides to the use of words in particular contexts—then,

dictionaries provide guidance to faith, thought, and life as well. Interpreters who allow
their speech to be instructed by the communicative acts of the Scriptures will learn to
continue the semantic itineraries of the biblical texts into their own times. This suggests
that the ultimate function of a good theological dictionary is not only to provide mere
information, but also to aid in the formation of faithful and competent disciples.


1 The Concise Oxford Dictionary, 8th ed., 1990, 304.

2 L. Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass, in The Philosopher's Alice, ed. Peter Heath,
1974, 193.

3 I here draw on three kinds of knowledge distinguished by Aristotle in his

Nichomachean Ethics, Bk. VI. Biblical interpretation, I suggest, most closely resembles
neither episteme (e.g., knowledge of the eternal and necessary), nor techne (e.g.,
knowledge of how to make things), but rather phronesis (e.g., knowledge of what to do
in or make of particular situations).

4 Cratylus represents the situation after modernity: The postmodern person accepts
modernity's high requirements for what counts as knowledge—namely, Cartesian
certainty or foundationalism—then denies that such foundations exist.

5 The character of Socrates is something of an enigma in this dialogue. It is not entirely

clear at the end with whom he agrees, nor exactly what his position is. Some Plato
scholars have suggested that much of what Socrates says is satirical; he ridicules the
position that one can philosophize by doing etymology.

6 Cratylus, in The Dialogues of Plato, tr. Benjamin Jowett, 18923, 1:238.

7 Plato, Theaetetus 147b.

8 Cratylus, 372.

9 Ibid., 383.

10 Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, 1.8. Wittgenstein cites this passage in the opening
pages of his Philosophical Investigations and comments that Augustine gives us a
particular picture of the essence of human language. On Wittgenstein's own position,
see below.

11 Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, 1.2.2.

12 Ibid., 2.10.15.

13 Ibid., 3.5.9.

14 Ibid., 3.10.14.

15 James Barr notes the corresponding trend in biblical studies to focus on the mind of
the writers, on the authorial intentions. This eventually led to critics distinguishing
between the mental representation of a series of events—the biblical accounts—on the
one hand, and the results of historical reconstruction of what actually happened, on the
other. See Barr, The Bible in the Modern World, 1973, 91-3.

16 Goob Frege's “On Sense and Reference,” tr. Max Black, in Translation from the
Philosophical Writings of Goob Frege, 1970, 56-78.

17 Cf. Barr: “We today in general do not move directly from biblical texts to external
referents, but from biblical texts to the theological intentions of the writers and only
from there indirectly to external referents,” The Bible in the Modern World, 175.

18 David Kelsey calls this “biblical concept theology,” in his The Uses of Scripture in
Recent Theology, 1975, 24. See esp. ch. 1, “Doctrine and Concept.”

19 Etymologies are given even in the Bible to make certain theological points, e.g., Matt
1:21 (lit.), “'and his name shall be called Emmanuel' (which means, God with us).”

20 Kelsey, The Uses of Scripture, 27.

21 James Barr, The Semantics of Biblical Language, 246.

22 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 1961, 2.01.

23 Ibid., 2.21.

2 4 See Anthony Kenny, Wittgenstein , 1973, ch. 4 (“The Picture Theory of a

25 Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 3.203.

26 On logical atomism and logical positivism, see J. O. Urmson, Philosophical Analysis:

Its Development Between the Two World Wars, 1956, and William P. Alston, Philosophy
of Language, 1964 (ch. 4).

27 Kelsey, in his study of Warfield's use of Scripture, comments that what Warfield calls
“biblical theology” is instead a kind of “biblical positivism” (Uses of Scripture, 23).

28 Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, 1873, 1:10. For a fuller and perhaps more
subtle account of the Princetonians, see David Wells, ed., Reformed Theology in
America, 1985, chs. 2-3.

29 Benjamin B. Warfield, “The Right of Systematic Theology,” in Selected Shorter

Writings of Benjamin B. Warfield, 1970, 2:234.

30 W. Andrew Hoffecker observes that though Warfield was a persistent critic of

modernity, “his own view of using 'facts'—both rational facts to demonstrate God's
existence ... and biblical facts to arrive at a sound theology—sounds even more modern”
(“Benjamin B. Warfield,” in Reformed Theology in America, 79).

31 Don Cupitt (see below) associates the view that the world has a determinate
extralinguistic structure that can be formulated in language with Calvinism and labels it
“Protestant commonsense realism” (The Long-Legged Fly, 1987, 163).

32 See Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature,


33 For a recent example of this trend, see The Postmodern Bible, The Bible and Culture
Collective, 1995.

34 I owe this particular example to Catherine Belsey, Critical Practice, 1980, 44.

35 François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, 1984.

36 Don Cupitt, The Last Philosophy, 1995, 44.

37 Cupitt, The Long-legged Fly, 57.

38 The British empiricists, such as John Locke and David Hume, thought of ideas as
representations or impressions of experience. Words on this view represent thought or
experience rather than things, as in Plato and premodernity.

39 This position is particularly associated with Michel Foucault, who argues that
language, a social force, is the power of determinacy that creates the categories with
which we interpret the world and human experience.
40 For another demonstration of this thesis, see Edgar V. McKnight, Post-Modern Use of
the Bible: The Emergence of Reader-Oriented Criticism, 1988.

41 Cupitt is equally happy with “linguistic naturalism” as a description of his position

(The Last Philosophy, 38).

42 Ibid., 44.

43 See L. Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity (German edition, 1841), tr. George
Eliot, 1989.

44 John Macquarrie, “Systematic Theology,” A New Handbook of Christian Theology,

1992, 470.

4 5 G. R. Evans, Old Arts and New Theology: The Beginnings of Theology as an

Academic Discipline, 1980, 108.

46 See his Summa Theologica, I, Q. 13.

47 Aristotle's study of the various uses of the verb “to be” (undertaken as part of his
analysis of the concept “substance” in his Metaphysics ) laid the groundwork for the
medieval notion of the “analogy of being” (analogia entis). See Aristotle, Metaphysics

48 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 1a. 13.2.

49 Ibid., 1a. 13.7.

50 “Ontotheology” is connected to the analogy of being insofar as it is the attempt to

think the God of the Bible in terms of Greek metaphysics. See Brian D. Ingriffia's
Postmodern Theory and Biblical Theology (CUP, 1995) for a critique of ontotheology.
Ingriffia argues that ontotheology is a philosophical construction and calls instead for a
return to biblical theology—not the God of abstract speculation but the God of revelation
and action in history.

51 Aquinas was well aware of the discontinuities between God and his creatures as well.
Some of the things we say about God we say by way of negation: for instance, God is
not finite (infinite), not changeable (immutable). The idea that God cannot be
understood in human categories led some patristic and medieval thinkers to do negative
or apophatic theology. Pseudo-Dionysius, an anonymous writer probably dating from the
sixth century, argued that God's names are only provisional: God is beyond all human
names and categories.

52 For a fuller treatment of Barth's dialectical view of revelation as both a “veiling” and
an “unveiling” of God by God, see Bruce McCormack, Karl Barth's Critically Realistic
Dialectical Theology: Its Genesis and Development 1909-1936, 1995, 269-73.
53 According to G. Ward, Barth here offers a restatement of the “meaning as divine
use” idea that we first saw adumbrated, and rejected, in Cratylus. In Barth's case, of
course, revelation is a trinitarian act, involving the Son as content and the Spirit as the
“Lord of the hearing” of revelation.

54 G. Ward, Barth, Derrida and the Language of Theology, 1995, 29.

55 McCormack, Barth's Dialectical Theology, 271.

56 On Ward's reading, Barth's view of language resembles Derrida's: “It is Barth's

insight into the dialectical necessity of assuming that words name while also countering
such an assumption that draws his theological work into the orbit of postmodern
debates” (Barth, Derrida, and the Language of Theology, 5).

57 To be exact, Mark Taylor writes that “deconstruction is the 'hermeneutic' of the

death of God” (Erring: A Postmodern A/theology, 1984, 6).

58 S. Burke, The Death and Return of the Author, 1992, 22.

59 See also M. Foucault, “What Is an Author,” in Language, Counter-Memory Practice,

1977, and R. Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” in Image-Music-Text, 1977.

60 D. Dawson, Literary Theory , 1995, 11. Dawson helpfully discusses how both
Christian theology and literary theory develop the themes of spirit, body, and text.

61 Or, there is “no outside-text” (il n'y a pas de hors-texte); Derrida, Of Grammatology
(tr. G. Spivak), 1976, 158.

62 Ibid., 14.

63 George Steiner, Real Presences, 1989, 3.

64 Ricoeur's philosophical hermeneutics similarly relies on the notion of a wager that

the text mediates meaning to the reader. See, for example, his Symbolism of Evil, 355.

65 Steiner, Real Presences, 122.

66 Krister Stendahl, “Biblical Theology, Contemporary,” in IDB, 1:418-32.

67 P. Ricoeur, Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning, 1976, 8.

68 Ibid., 7.

69 Ibid., 7.

70 For a helpful study of signs and sentences in the context of communication studies,
see J. Fiske, Introduction to Communication Studies, 2d ed. 1990. A communicative
action is action oriented to achieving understanding.
71 Ibid., 2.

72 See J. L. Austin, How to Do Things With Words, 1961.

73 The locutionary aspect of meaning corresponds to langue , that is, to the range of
possible sense a term could have at a given point in the history of a language.

74 Whereas Austin and Wittgenstein believed there were countless ways of using
language, John Searle proposes a comprehensive fivefold typology of the basic things
we do with language: “We tell people how things are, we try to get them to do things,
we commit ourselves to doing things, we express our feelings and attitudes and we
bring about changes through our utterances” (Expression and Meaning: Studies in the
Theory of Speech Acts, CUP, 1979, 29). See also J. Searle, Speech Acts: An Essay in the
Philosophy of Language, 1969.

75 Austin, How to Do Things With Words, 10.

76 Ben F. Meyer agrees that the object of interpretation is the intended sense of the
text. Meyer, however, is more careful than E. D. Hirsch to distinguish the purpose the
author may have had in writing (which lies behind the text) and the intention of the
author intrinsic to or enacted in the text. See Meyer, Critical Realism and the New
Testament, 1989, ch. 2, esp. 36-41.

77 On the significance of Dilthey for hermeneutics, see P. Ricoeur, Hermeneutics and

the Human Sciences: Essays on Language, Action and Interpretation, 1981, chs. 2, 3.

78 For a fuller treatment of this theology and how it funds both a doctrine of Scripture
and theological anthropology, see my “God's Mighty Speech Acts: The Doctrine of
Scripture Today” (in A Pathway into the Holy Scripture 1994, 143-97), and “Stories of
the Self: Human Being, Individual and Social” (in The Cambridge Companion to Christian
Doctrine, forthcoming).

7 9 C. Altieri, Act and Quality: A Theory of Literary Meaning and Humanistic

Understanding, 1981, 10. Ricoeur, however, speaks of the “semantic autonomy” of the
text, by which he means that the author's intention and the textual meaning cease to
coincide. On the other hand, he is unwilling to cancel out the main features of discourse
(e.g., that it is said by someone to someone about something) for fear that texts would
be reduced to natural objects (Interpretation Theory, 29).

80 For a more complete analysis of levels of interpretive description, see my Is There a

Meaning in This Text? ch. 6.

81 W. Jeanrond coins the phrase “text linguistics” to argue that the text should be the
“basic linguistic unit.” See his Text and Interpretation as Categories of Theological
Thinking, 1988, 75.
82 For Derrida, a text is never a totality (e.g., a closed and complete whole), but is
rather constitutionally open (e.g., indeterminate). An interpretation is, therefore, not so
much the exposition of a system as it is an indispensable supplement to a text. On the
key notion of supplement in Derrida, see his Of Grammatology, 141-64.

83 Westminster Confession of Faith, 1.9.

84 I owe this point to Tim Ward, one of my doctoral students.

85 Hans Frei, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: A Study in Eighteenth and Nineteenth
Century Hermeneutics, 1974.

86 Frei is clear that these interpretive moves were not made in a theological vacuum.
On the contrary, biblical criticism flourished in the context either of Deism or
naturalism—anything but a supernaturalism that affirmed divine action in history.

87 Frei, Eclipse, 130.

88 In my Is There a Meaning in This Text, ch. 7, I explore the role of the Holy Spirit in
giving interpreters ears to hear the text's voice rather than their own.

89 Several OT commentators have noted the high degree of irony and humor in the
book of Jonah (see, for instance, J. C. Holbert, “'Deliverance Belongs to Yahweh!': Satire
in the Book of Jonah” , JSOT 21, 1981, 59-81). What is being ridiculed is Jonah's
egocentric (read “ethnocentric”) attitude with regard to the love of God. Jonah
mistakenly thinks that God's love is primarily for the Jews. To his chagrin, Jonah is the
only character that turns out not to have repented by the end of the book.

90 This wording is George Lindbeck's, a colleague of Frei's, but it well captures the spirit
of Frei's proposal (Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine, 1984, 118).

91 Neither Frei nor Sternberg deny the historical intent of much biblical narrative, only
that the Bible's historical reference should be understood in the context of modern,
rather than biblical, historiography. See M. Sternberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative:
Ideological Literature and the Drama of Reading, 1987.

92 Matthew highlights the parallels between Jesus' story and that of Moses (e.g., the
flight into Egypt, the Law on the mountain). The other Evangelists show that Jesus is
the Servant of the Lord who takes up the unfinished task of Israel and fulfills the three
offices—prophet, priest, and king—that constituted Israel as the people of God.

93 B. Childs argues that the literal sense of a text is the sense it has in its canonical
context (B. S. Childs, “The Sensus Literalis of Scripture: An Ancient and Modern
Problem,” in Beiträge zur alttestamentlichen Theologie, 1977, 80-93.

94 See B. S. Childs, The Book of Exodus: A Critical Theological Commentary, OTL, 1974.
Childs believes that the biblical texts display a peculiar “canonical intentionality,” by
which he means they were intentionally shaped in such a way so as to function as
normative Scripture for later generations (Childs, Biblical Theology of the Old and New
Testaments, 1992, 70-79).

95 J. B. Gabel and C. B. Wheeler, The Bible As Literature, 1986, 16.

96 G. Berkouwer observes that “a serious attempt to do justice to literary types was

motivated by the desire to deal correctly with the sui ipsius interpres ('its own
interpreter')” (Holy Scripture, 1975, 131).

97 See J. L. Bailey, “Genre Analysis,” in Hearing the New Testament, 1995, 197-221.

98 D. Kelsey, paraphrasing a definition given in Alistair MacIntyre's After Virtue (1981),

in To Understand God Truly: What's Theological About a Theological School, 1992, 118.

99 B. Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation, 1970, 145. Similarly, E. D. Hirsch states

that verbal meaning is always genre-bound. Hirsch defines genre as the “controlling idea
of the whole,” an idea that governs our idea as to what a text is (Validity in
Interpretation, 1967, 79).

100 Hirsch, Validity in Interpretation, 70.

101 See M. Bakhtin, “The Problem of Speech Genres,” in M. Bakhtin, Speech Genres &
Other Late Essays, tr. V. W. McGee, 1986.

102 L. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 1967, I, § 11.

103 The biblical narrative maps out divine action in history; biblical law maps out God's
will for human behavior; biblical prophecy maps out the privileges and responsibilities of
God's covenant people; biblical wisdom maps out how persons are to fit into God's
created order, etc.

104 N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 1992, 37.

105 Frei, Eclipse, 280. See also Frei's The Identity of Jesus Christ: The Hermeneutical
Bases of Dogmatic Theology, 1975.

106 Frei, Eclipse, 280.

107 Even metaphors, according to Ricoeur, are a matter not of “deviant naming” but
rather of a semantic tension within sentences. For his criticism of the “names theory” of
metaphor, see Ricoeur, The Rule of Metaphor, 1978.

108 See, for instance, Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Q. 1 art. 2.

109 R. Morgan, “Biblical Theology,” in A Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation, 87.

110 I elsewhere speak of the tendency to overlook literary form in one's zeal to obtain
the teaching as the “propositional heresy” (“Semantics of Biblical Literature,” 72).
111 B. Ramm, Special Revelation and the Word of God, 1968, 68.

112 Thomas à Kempis, Of the Imitation of Christ, 1.1.3.

113 See Ricoeur, Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences, ch. 8.

114 C. S. Lewis, “Myth Became Fact,” in God in the Dock, 1985.

115 In French, sens means both “meaning” and “direction.” Ricoeur can thus speak of a
“semantic itinerary” and call for readers to continue a text's trajectory of meaning.

116 I have elsewhere discussed the way language refers to the reality of God in terms
of “rendering.” See my “From Canon to Concept: 'Same' and 'Other' in the Relation
Between Biblical and Systematic Theology,” Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology 12,
1994, 96-124, esp. 123.

117 See J. M. Soskice, Metaphor and Religious Language, 1985, 148-61.

118 F. Watson, Text, Church, and World, 1994, 224-25.

119 Again, this kind of knowledge is personal—a knowledge won by acquaintance and
appropriation (connaître). It is also practical, like Aristotle's phronesis—a knowledge of
what to do and how to act in a particular (literary, in this case) situation.


J. Barr, The Semantics of Biblical Language, 1961, 246; B. S. Childs, Biblical Theology of
the Old and New Testament, 1991; H. Frei, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: A Study in
Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Hermeneutics, 1974; J. Green, ed., Hearing the New
Testament: Strategies for Interpretation, 1995; W. Jeanrond, Text and Interpretation as
Categories of Theological Thinking, 1988; G. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A
Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 1991; P. Ricoeur, Interpretation
Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning, 1976; M. Sternberg, The Poetics of
Biblical Narrative, 1987; A. Thiselton, New Horizons in Hermeneutics, 1991; K. J.
Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text? The Bible, the Reader, and the Morality of
Literary Knowledge , forthcoming; G. Ward, Barth, Derrida and the Language of
Theology , 1995, 29; F. Watson, Text, Church and World: Biblical Interpretation in
Theological Perspective, 1994; N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God,
1992, 37.

Kevin Vanhoozer